The Kansas City Chiefs topped the Buffalo Bills in one-sided fashion back in October, but a lot has changed in Orchard Park.
Why is the NFL even bothering to play the AFC Championship Game on Sunday afternoon? We already saw what a nationally televised matchup between the Buffalo Bills and Kansas City Chiefs (6:40 p.m. ET, CBS) had to offer back in October.
The Monday late afternoon tilt in Orchard Park (wth health protocols moving the game from its original Thursday night slot) wasn’t as close as the 26-17 margin in Kansas City’s advantage indicated. The defending champion Chiefs outgained Buffalo 466-206 and Josh Allen’s box score (14-of-27, 122 yards) was conjured from the sweetest dreams of his detractors. To make things even scarier, the Chiefs’ comfortable victory came with megastar Patrick Mahomes posting relatively pedestrian numbers (225 yards, two scores). Mahomes’ status for Sunday remains in question after he left last week’s Divisional round victory with a head injury.
With their loss, combined with a listless showing in Nashville the week prior, the Bills had apparently missed their chance to prove why they belonged amongst the NFL’s elite. Sure, they were content to win an AFC East featuring the woebegone Jets, declining Patriots, and developing Dolphins, but keys to the AFC penthouse would have to wait, granted only to Kansas City and their guests from Tennessee and Pittsburgh.
But a lot has changed since October. Vaccines to combat the ongoing health crisis were still in the development stages. In the Star Wars galaxy, Grogu was still known as “Baby Yoda” and, as far as we knew, Boba Fett was still in the belly of the Sarlacc.
The Bills, meanwhile, have cleaned themselves up…
Their offense has gotten better at controlling the game
Offensive control goes far beyond the yardage battle, though the BIlls are handling their business in that department. Since putting up only 206 against the Chiefs in October, the Bills broke the 300-yard mark in each of their next 11 games, a streak that ended in the Orchard Park winds of the Divisional playoff victory over Baltimore. In that span, Buffalo eclipsed 400 six times, including a whopping 534 in their playoff-clinching win over Denver.
Perhaps more important, however, is what Buffalo can do in the time of possession affairs. When one leads such a battle, it means their offense is still on the field and that the opponent’s unit…in this case, one featuring Mahomes, Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill, and other scoring titans…can only watch from the sidelines.
If any franchise knows the value of winning the time of possession column, it’s the Buffalo Bills. Scott Norwood’s memorable miss in Super Bowl XXV could’ve been avoided bad the Bills had held the ball for more than 20 minutes. The New York Giants, reduced to a backup quarterback, methodically milked the clock with a rushing attack headlined by MVP Ottis Anderson. They wound up keeping the ball for over two-thirds of game time (40:33) to secure a 20-19 victory. The Giants kept their offense on the field while Jim Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed, and Co. could only helplessly look on.
The modern Bills have appeared to have taken that lesson to heart. Though they’ve lost the battle in each of their postseason pair thus far, odds considerably tilt to their favor when they hold the ball longer. The Bills are 6-0 when they hold the ball for at least 33 minutes, notably keeping it for 41:17 in their Week 1 win over the Jets. In contrast, Buffalo had only 22:15 of offense during their prior excursion against the Chiefs. Winning the TOP struggle has proven effective in neutralizing a Mahomes offense before. Kansas City has lost nine games with Mahomes under center since he took over the starting role in 2018. The Chiefs have lost the time of possession battle in all but one of those games. Included in the negative tally is their overtime defeat to New England in the 2018-19 AFC Championship Game.
They’ve cracked down on opposing rushing efforts
How did Kansas City manage to look so dominant with Mahomes looking uncharacteristically average? Simple…they’re known as the Kansas City Chiefs, not the Kansas City Mahomes (more on this from a Buffalo standpoint later).
The Chiefs have built their new NFL dominion through a team effort. Though Mahomes has obviously played a role in the Chiefs’ ongoing success, new heroes have surfaced in times of trouble. Sub-Mahomes efforts, or even his medical-induced disappearances, are not immediate causes for on-field panic. Kansas City’s run game has routinely stepped up when Mahomes is held in check. That was true during the early stages of last year’s Super Bowl, as Damien Williams put up 104 rushing yards and the final two touchdowns in the 31-20 victory. When Mahomes had to leave the Divisional proceedings against Cleveland, the unrelated Darrel Williams put up 47 yards on seven carries to help take the pressure and load off backup Chad Henne, ticking precious time off the clock in the process.
In the first Buffalo meeting, it was first-round rookie Clyde Edwards-Helaire who rose up with 161 yards on the ground, while Darrel Williams put in a second-half touchdown that gave the Chiefs a two-possession lead. If Mahomes plays but isn’t at 100 percent on Sunday in Missouri, there’d be little surprise in
But the Bills defense has cracked down since Edwards-Helaire’s Western New York stampede. While it’s still not at a level they’re truly satisfied with the betterment has nonetheless played a role in their success. Only two rushers (Damien Harris and Kenyan Drake) have gotten to the century mark since Edwards-Helarie’s infantile career day at 102 and 100 respectively. They additionally held another stud rookie rusher, Jonathan Taylor, to under four yards a carry during their Wild Card victory over Indianapolis (21 carries, 78 yards). Buffalo later held Baltimore’s top-ranked run game in check in the Divisional round, allowing no rushers greater than 15 yards from Gus Edwards, J.K. Dobbins, and Lamar Jackson.
“We said, OK, we’re going to dare them to stay with the run game, and lo and behold, they stayed with it, and had a lot of success running the football,” Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier said of the October game, per Jourdon LaBarber of BuffaloBills.com. “You know, we learned a lot from that ballgame, hopefully some lessons that will help us going forward, but that was the strategy going into game. We’ll have to find a balance, do a better job against the run than we did in that first encounter.”
They’ve improved far beyond Josh Allen
In a cruelly ironic twist, would an MVP Award for Josh Allen actually hurt the Bills?
In a perfect world, distribution of Most Valuable Player awards would truly live up to its definition. But it too often simply goes to the best players on the best team or relies solely on stats. Magnificent as Mahomes has been, Kansas City has shown that they’re more than capable of competing when a backup quarterback like Henne or Matt Moore has to take the reins.
Since his drafting in 2018, the Bills fortunes have been perceived as rising and falling through the play of Allen. That’s ridiculously unfair in a sport that relies so heavily on team antics, but those who believe in such philosophies had evidence through Allen’s shortcomings. Over his first two seasons, Buffalo posted a 6-13 record when Allen posted a passer rating of 90 worse. That tally included his 69.5 posting in the Bills’ Wild Card defeat in Houston last year.
Granted, Allen has improved himself to the point where he’s not posting these kinds of numbers on a regular basis. Additionally, his jaw-dropping highlight reels often speak for themselves. But, as mentioned above, the 2020 version of Allen has gotten by with a little help from his friends. Buffalo’s record now stands at a much more tolerable 4-3 when Allen’s passer rating is at that precipice. A perfect example came last week against Baltimore in the Divisional tilt. By typical 2020-21 standards, the game was a struggle for the Bills offense, which put up only 220 yards and 17 first downs.
The defense, however, had Allen’s back, upping the pressure on Jackson and providing the most crucial score through Taron Johnson’s 101-yard interception return for a touchdown. They likewise added four sacks, including two from Jerry Hughes, his second multi-sack game in his last three postseason contests. Momentum-shifting turnovers have been nothing new in Buffalo. Since picking up only one in the Kansas City loss, the Bills have earned multiple turnovers in six games.
As for blocking, Allen’s pocket has been relatively clean, having been sacked four times in the two playoff showings. When the pressure has raised a few octaves, to the tune of a pair of fumbles that could’ve shifted the courses of those games, but Darryl Williams and Dion Dawkins each came up big with recoveries.
In short, since their pair of defeats…the Bills could well have been holding a 12-game winning streak if not for Kyler Murray’s miracle…the Bills are providing a whole new meaning to “All-22”. Time will tell if it’ll be enough to topple the budding dynasty in Kansas City. But it won’t come through relying solely on the prescience of Allen.
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags